An amendment to the 2020 House defense spending bill, which passed July 12, could set in motion a project that has long lain dormant: the site clean-up of an old NIKE missile base in Watertown Township.
Not limited to the Watertown site, the amendment, authored by Rep. Dean Phillips (MN-3), could eventually lead to funding for the decontamination of former Army sites now owned by local governments around the U.S.
“It’s not just about the interest in the district, but it’s the recognition there are sites like this around the country. It’s the recognition that DoD has the responsibility to assess these sites,” Phillips said.
The site in Watertown Township, located just off county road 127, was purchased in 1974 by the Western Area Fire Training Academy (WAFTA), a consortium of 11 cities that includes Watertown, St. Bonifacius and Mound, for use as a shared fire fighter training facility. Training at the site ceased in 1992 when various contaminants were found in soil and groundwater.
The Phillips amendment does not specifically allocate funds to the Watertown site or others in the nation, nor does it guarantee the site will be cleaned up at all, but it does signify a rare step forward as those present during an Aug. 8 WAFTA meeting – the first such meeting in three years – made clear.
“That initial ‘get it on the docket’ and get the language out there and force this to be addressed as a no longer Department of Defense owned site but as a previously transferred one is a significant, significant step forward,” said Mound city manager Eric Hoversten.
Multiple requests for funding over the years have failed, and WAFTA cities have requested the return of the site to DoD as recently as last spring. That request, too, was denied.
“The point of the amendment is to identify the population of sites for review so that the army can know if this is a systemic problem and fix it,” Samantha Anderson, press secretary for Phillips, wrote in an email. “The point of the legislation is to get to formerly DoD-owned sites that fell through the cracks and didn’t get cleaned up through Superfund or another program.”
Superfund is the common name for the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which disburses funding for contaminated site clean-up. Watertown Township likely would not qualify for a Superfund grant because the Environmental Protection Agency does not consider it a priority site.
An exact number of sites that would be included for review under the amendment was not immediately available, but a separate directive from Secretary of Defense Mark Esper alludes to a review of “more than 400” sites (see adjoining article). The Phillips amendment includes only those sites used by the Army and not those used by other branches of the military.
The site clean-up for Watertown Township alone could cost about $489,000, according to environmental consulting firm Wood’s 2014 estimate, the most recent estimate available. Not included in that estimate is the removal of three underground concrete bunkers, or silos, a job that Hoversten, who has had some experience with silos from his military service, said is a whole other issue for how “impossible” they are to remove having been built to withstand aerial bombing.
Currently, WAFTA has just over $260,000 in its coffers. That money has come from its member cities’ combined $22,000 in annual dues. The group has few expenditures apart from nominal legal fees and once yearly mowing.
Fire training on the property ceased in 1992 when petroleum compounds were found in the groundwater. Since then, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), compounds in the firefighting foam used to treat chemical fires, have also been found. WAFTA cities have attempted to resolve various pollution issues on the site for the past 26 years, working alongside the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
The end goal is to sell the lot for commercial or agricultural development or to return the property to the Department of Defense.
Kristi Luger, Excelsior’s city manager and WAFTA representative, said that she has received high interest in the property but that once reports come back detailing the amount of pollution and the associated costs, those prospective buyers don’t call back.
Though the site is physically in Watertown Township, the city of Excelsior holds the deed in trust.
Interest in the property has ranged from residential to light manufacturing, and proposals have included a gun range, a solar farm and a movie theater, Mound Fire Chief Greg Pederson said.
Xcel Energy and CenterPoint Energy also held fire training on the site but have not contributed to the clean-up fund. The Department of Defense has contributed $25,000, and WAFTA did receive $250,000 in federal funding around 2004 that went toward a site analysis.
A possible timeline for clean-up, on assumption of the Senate’s passage of the House bill, could still reach years into the future. Hoversten estimated that just a review of former Army sites could take as long as two years.
“Then there’s prioritization and then there’s remedial action planning and there’s funding and you can see how this might still be years down the road before there’s ever a machine on site,” Hoversten said. “But that is what’s now set in motion that’s never been set in motion before.”